Susannah Eckersley of UNEW attended the EUNAMUS conference ‘Great historical narratives in Europe’s National Museums’ in Paris in November 2011. The conference was grouped into four themed sessions: Constructing narratives in the museum; Traditions of national identity construction; Intersecting territories and narratives; Historical revisions and contested heritage. Each session included a number of very interesting and informative presentations by speakers from both universities and museums exploring topics from across the full breadth of Europe. Presentations were given in English, French and Spanish.
A number of the presentations focussed on building and architectural decoration programmes within museums of the 19th century, while others examined specific aspects of contested or conflicting national histories within national museums and galleries. The very full programme (with 13-15 speakers per day) allowed for a significant number of European countries and issues to be explored over the two days. Of particular interest for the UNEW team and Research Field 1 were the following presentations:
- Hilde Nielsen, Sigrid Lien (University of Bergen): ‘Conventional Ethnographic Display or Subversive Aesthetics? Historical narratives of the Sami National Museum in Norway’.
‘…to what extent [the Sami culture] is best represented – in a natural history exhibition as an example of the adaptation to the barren Northern conditions, in an ethnographic context of foreign cultures, on the National museum as one of the regional cultures, in arts and crafts exhibitions as inspiration for local production and tourism, or in a separate national museum – is an open question that is negotiated in our time’ (Aronsson 2010: 347). The question of how and where Sami culture is best represented is still a debated issue in Norway. However, politically the problem has been “solved” through the establishment of a Sami national museum: RiddoDuottarMuseat in Finnmark (Northern Norway). The museum, which is run by Sami people, sorts administratively under the Sami Parliament.
Based on fieldwork at the museum, this paper presents an analysis of the exhibition practices that challenges earlier readings of Sami museums in Norway. Sami museums have been subjected to considerable criticism. They have been accused for propagating ethnic reification and for producing museum narratives that present a stereotypical and static image of Sami culture and identity. It is even argued that they paradoxically enhance ethnographic stereotypes (Mathisen 2010). The exhibitions are seen as replicas of conventional ethnographic displays. More specifically it has been argued that the RiddoDuottarMuseat in Karasjok presents an exhibition narrative that reflects a pre-modern Sami culture, that the objects are displayed without focus on chronology, and with no historical anchoring except for belonging to a traditional past.
We argue, on the contrary, that far from replicating the exhibition language of dominant western ethnography, the exhibition at the RiddoDuottarMuseat in Karasjok can be seen as an effort to undermine the conceptions of time and history of the dominant society. By evoking a mythical landscape through aesthetic means, they inscribe themselves in a Sami conception of time and space – a Sami understanding of reality. This and other aspects concerning the processes of museum narration in the production of Sami nationhood will be further discussed in the paper. It should be kept in mind that the production of nationhood is an ongoing process in a context where many Sami people talk about themselves as still being colonised. The paper is based on current research, as part of the multi-disciplinary project Photographs, Colonial Legacy and Museums in Contemporary European Culture, financed by HERA (The Humanities in the European Research Area).
- Leila Koivunen ( University of Turku): ‘The National Museum of Finland and silencing of the “exotic”’.
After a prolonged construction period the National Museum of Finland opened its doors to the public in January 1916. At that time, Finland was still part of the Russian Empire, but gained independence a year later in December 1917. Obviously, the museum project was of major importance to the young nation, the construction of self-image and new identities, but it also had its roots in very different museum ideologies and collections. A large part of the materials of the new museum were derived from the former Museum of Ethnography, research and teaching collection in the University of Helsinki, which had a strong tradition in non-Western, “exotic” collections. The establishment of the Finnish National Museum represented a significant break with this tradition and an invention of new, seemingly more relevant nationally focused narrative and content to the museum.
In this paper, I will discuss the shift from the dominance of non-Western cultures and collections toward the narration based on the Finnish nation. I will shed light on the changing and diminishing importance of other cultures in the national story and the fate they eventually faced: most of the valuable objects of foreign origin were packed and stocked in the attic of the new museum for over one hundred years. Yet, at the same time when distant cultures were omitted from the national story, the idea of the Finno-Ugric community of the past gained strength in Finland and moved the boundaries between “us” and “them” to new directions.
- Frank Matthias Kammel (Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg): ‘The cultural memory of a nation without national borders’
The Germanisches Nationalmuseum (Nuremberg) showcases and researches German-speaking culture. Its foundation in 1852 was grounded in the unity conscience of a nation which was characterised by a common language and culture but lived in numerous separate states: the particular German states, the Habsburg Empire, Switzerland, France (Alsace) etc. It is thus a ‘Germanic’ and not a ‘German’ museum, since it concerned – and still concerns – itself with German culture beyond national boundaries, from Schleswig to South Tyrol and from Alsace to Transylvania. The task of the institution was therefore not to present the political or even military history of a state-nation. Instead, its aim was to relate vividly and communicate visually the social and cultural life of the German people (population) in the past. This aim has not changed today. Not least for this reason, the Deutsches Historisches Museum was founded in Berlin in 1987, an institution, which is committed primarily to the political history of an entity of a sovereign state.
- Pascale Meyer (Swiss National Museum, Zurich): ‘Swiss history – narrated in four chapters at the Swiss National Museum (2009)’.
In 2009, the Swiss National Museum in Zurich chose a new approach for its permanent exhibition, and made a thematic narrative – based on four major research areas of contemporary historiography – the centre of its exhibition rooms. Underpinning this concept was the realisation that the main focus of contemporary research must be reflected in the presentation of history, even if it is in a constant process of change and reformulation. The collection of objects in the National Museum’s possession reflects earlier areas of research into Switzerland’s cultural history. The second new permanent exhibition, the ‘Collections Gallery’ reflects this emphasis on collecting, and shows the outstanding pieces in a display that is solely focused on the objects.
In contrast, the permanent exhibition on Swiss history had to find new ways of presentation, since the National Museum’s collections have gaps in the areas of political and economic history, as well as in contemporary history. And yet, a new narrative of Swiss history must offer visitors precisely these links between outstanding objects of cultural history and the narrative of a national history, which addresses themes that are not shown in the collection. The four chapters of Swiss history are structured chronologically and enable the historical study of the settlement, religious, political and economic history of Switzerland – from the pre-Christian era to the 21st century.
The objects in the collection have now been given ‘a new mediality’ in the nation’s venerable ‘Hall of Fame’. The modernity of the scenography, the presentations and arrangements of the objects, break with the earlier presentation of political history which was characterised by the depiction of military victories. It now takes the visitor along a path – which can be physically followed – to consensual Swiss democracy and thus makes a contribution to the contemporary understanding of political developments in Switzerland. The other rooms give visitors a picture of Switzerland that is shaped by immigration and emigration, by religious conflicts and splits, by its political system based on consensus as well as early economic successes. The narrative strand links transformational processes with the great ruptures in history, and thus places itself entirely at the service of historical learning, one of the most important tasks of a History Museum.
Abstracts of all papers are available at: www.eunamus.eu/firstpage/novemberabstracts.pdf
Post by Susannah Eckersley